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Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Wife

May 18, 2011

Probably the most highly-anticipated single episode of Doctor Who since ‘Rose’, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ is renowned author Neil Gaiman’s long-awaited loveletter to the show. The TARDIS picks up what seems to be a distress call from another Time Lord, the Corsair — ‘one of the good ones!’ — and travels beyond the universe to a sort of pocket bubble universe, a junkyard. There, two strange creatures, Auntie and Uncle, are leading a woman called Idris to her death. Only she doesn’t die — she turns into someone else. Someone very familiar to Who fans, yet whom we’ve never seen before…

What follows, rather wonderfully, is a story only Doctor Who could do. In a way, the basic concept — spoilers ahead! — of the TARDIS itself reified as a flesh-and-blood being could have appeared at any time since, oh ‘The Edge of Destruction’ back in 1963. We’re fortunate that it hasn’t until now, since this is, in Who terms, a story which the only post-2005 iteration of the show could have done in this emotive way. It’s a story which sifts, sorts and summarises an awful lot of Who lore, from the very first thing we knew about the Ship — Ian Chesterton declaring ‘It’s alive!’ as he touches the police box in Doctor Who‘s first ever episode, a long time ago in another junkyard — to those alarming, and apocryphal, rumours in the early 1990s that the proposed Who movie would see the TARDIS console replaced by an enormous pair of lips which would rap, or possessed by the ‘spirit’ of the Doctor’s old Time Lord tutor. This story has, as promised, changed the way viewers will see Doctor Who, past and future, forever. All those ‘Come on, old girl’s of the Pertwee and Baker years have a payoff now (she likes being called ‘old girl’), while various Doctors’ tendencies to thump the console at moments of high stress now acquire a rather worrying subtext. Crucially, though, it doesn’t crystallise or solidify too much of this lore. Even the inevitable (post-2005) moment where Idris tells the Doctor she loves him comes after an episode’s worth of people unable to quite say what they mean, or find the right word, or nail the terminology. Even the episode’s title comes with ambiguous-meaning baggage: when a fanzine writer visited Who‘s production offices in the early 80s to interview producer John Nathan-Turner, JNT quickly added bogus title ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ to the list of forthcoming stories on the wall to set a cat among pigeons and, little knowing it, demonstrating that nothing much would change in thirty years.

Suranne Jones plays Idris/the TARDIS as a faintly demented but eminently likeable counterpart to the Doctor: they flirt a bit, fight a bit (‘pull to open’), confide in each other, and mystify those around them. She develops throughout the episode, from skittish and curious at the start — bewildered by tenses, unable to express herself in the three-and-a-half-dimensional way the humans around her do — and becomes a proper companion (in all senses) to the Doctor by the end. (Best exchange of the series so far: The Doctor: ‘She’s a woman, and she’s the TARDIS.’ Amy: ‘Did you wish really hard?’ — Karen Gillan showing off her comic timing. Now it strikes me, Karen Gillan is a lot better this year than last run, when all she seemed to do from week to week was open her eyes wide or make catty remarks out the side of her mouth). Idris is a revelation, a robot Helena Bonham Carter built out of junkyard parts. I can’t have been the only viewer intrigued to see what other TARDISes would look like ‘humanised’ in this way — we never did see where the Master’s TARDIS ended up, did we…?

Originally intended to run last year, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ was postponed to Series Six, apparently so money to fund its making could be shored up. It seems to have worked: this is, yet again, sumptuous-looking Doctor Who. A palette of rich deep blues and greys in the junkyard locations, the eerie green glow suffusing the TARDIS, the wasteland of TARDIS parts and demolished spacecraft; Nephew pursuing Amy and Rory through the darkness. I keep wondering when the cheap-looking episode will show up: last year ‘The Lodger’ and particularly ‘Amy’s Choice’ were very obviously filmed relatively inexpensively. Maybe this is just how Who looks now, though?

Some elements didn’t quite work for me. The naming of Uncle, Auntie and Nephew was a bit fantasy-by-numbers and their realisation as Tim Burton-esque creatures (or maybe that’s Neil Gaiman-esque? I’m afraid I don’t know much Gaimaniana) made the first scenes of the episode strangely dense and information-heavy: who are these people, are they related, what are they — oh, she’s dead. Oh, no she’s not. Almost as soon as the script’s killed off Auntie and Uncle (Elizabeth Beresford and Adrian Schiller, both excellent), it relaxes and stops trying so hard. And while Amy and Rory being chased through the possessed TARDIS by House — a dwelling-place that’s also a malevolent spirit, and thus the precise opposite of the TARDIS in this story — are thrilling and uncanny (I loved the scene where Amy tries to open the door into the old console room as Nephew approaches in the background, a murky shadow with two brilliant green dots for eyes, slowly coming into focus), I found myself feeling aggrieved when the action cuts away from Idris and the Doctor. This is their story — they should have a whole season of asking each other questions — and the TARDIS chase sequences felt necessarily much less substantial. Their unseen aggressor is current hot property, and owner of  the not-to-be-confused-with surname of the moment, Michael Sheen. His voiceover is best when kept to a minimum; when he first speaks through Auntie and Uncle, it’s chilling; when he’s chatting to the Doctor towards the end, he seems to rush through his threats. That much vaunted ‘Fear me: I’ve killed hundreds of Time Lords’ line sounds a lot better in isolation, in the trailer, than it does tacked on to the end of a longer deep-voice rant here.

Never mind: for every quibble there’s a witty line casually thrown away, a nod to the series’ past (the TARDIS console flying solo through space recalls Season Seven, the appearance of more than one console room in the same story harks back to ‘The Masque of Mandragora’), or — which is all the juicier — a question raised. Given the fact that the ‘junk TARDIS’ Idris and the Doctor build bears a much closer resemblance to the old-style consoles of the 60s, 70s and 80s than to the organic, ‘grown not built’ Tennant-era one revisited here, this fan started speculating about the malfunctions that landed the TARDIS where we first saw her, in another junkyard in 1963, her chameleon circuit stuck in the police-box form. The Doctor knew he’d be on Earth long enough that he could let Susan enrol in school, and while Ben Aaronovitch’s 1988 script ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ suggests one reason for this long stint, ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ gently hints at another: could the Doctor, stuck with a malfunctioning TARDIS, have built that first-ever console room from junk as well? (It would certainly explain the notorious fast-return switch of ‘The Edge of Destruction’, and even explains why the component’s name was felt-tipped onto the console next to it!) How lovely it is that a story which goes back to basics in the way ‘The Doctor’s Wife’ does can also spark new questions, and new debates.

If there’s a missed opportunity here, other than the usual half-notion that this episode could have profited from being a good fifteen minutes longer, it’s that this much-delayed episode could have done with being delayed another two years to serve as Doctor Who‘s fiftieth anniversary story: a celebration of the enduring central relationship of the show, and an elaboration and revamping of some of the core myths that have built up at the heart of Who.

And of course there are new myths all the time. Before she expires, Idris just has time to whisper a mysterious sentence to Rory: “The only water in the forest is the river.” Whatever could it all mean? I’m hatching a no doubt over-convoluted theory involving the names River Song and Amy Pond, and the fact that next week’s episode ‘The Rebel Flesh’ is all about cloning and mistaken identity…

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